Music Review: Stephen Hough at Carnegie Hall

March 5th, 2013

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Stephen Hough in a solo concert at Carnegie Hall that included Chopin and Schumann, along with his own “Notturno Luminoso.’’

It is hard for concertgoers today to imagine what it must have been like in the early decades of the 20th century, when towering composers who were also extraordinary pianists, like Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Bartok, performed their own works. We have some invaluable recordings, of course. But hearing these composers playing their music when it was new must have been overwhelming.

The audience at Carnegie Hall on Monday was given a taste of what that once common experience was like when the British pianist Stephen Hough played the New York premiere of his Piano Sonata No. 2, “Notturno Luminoso,” composed last year. This demanding program also offered works by Chopin, Brahms and Schumann.

At 51, Mr. Hough has established himself as an extraordinary pianist, a thinking person’s virtuoso. Whether he is a towering composer is another question. Music history usually takes some time to make those calls. And, from this one hearing, I cannot claim that Mr. Hough’s Second Sonata is destined for a slot in the repertory.

But it is an exhilarating and inventive piece, brilliantly conceived for the piano. Mr. Hough, a polymath who also conducts, paints and writes poetry, is a lively writer on music who contributes a blog to The Daily Telegraph in London that is essential reading. Not surprisingly, he wrote a vividly detailed program note for his sonata.

The title “Notturno Luminoso” is meant to suggest the experience of a fantasy on a sleepless night in a brash city setting. As the piece, loosely organized in three parts, opens, we hear steely chords thick with clusters, like Messiaen’s harmonies but with a touch of bracing Copland or early Carter.

The theme, such as it is, emerges like a clangorous chorale. As the music builds in momentum, there are bursts of passagework that hover on a stylistic divide between frenetic jazz and ecstatic Messiaen.

The middle section is a “blizzard,” to use Mr. Hough’s apt description, of swirling, harmonically spiky runs that span the keyboard. Finally a halting theme breaks through — stirring, somber and intentionally Romantic.

The final section takes us back to the ambiguously clangorous/celestial music of the opening episode. By the end, the music settles into mellow chords with lingering, fidgety thoughts. This piece could be Mr. Hough’s answer to a work like Carter’s “Night Fantasies.”

Mr. Hough opened his program with beautifully subdued and ethereal accounts of Chopin’s Two Nocturnes (Op. 27). He then turned to Brahms’s Sonata No. 3 in F minor. In this 35-minute, five-movement work, you hear the 20-year-old Brahms striving to make a monumental statement. The piece may be structurally unshapely. And Brahms expected the piano to summon symphonic cascades of sound. But Mr. Hough conveyed the mix of youthful hubris and visionary daring in the piece, playing with dashing vitality and color.

He ended with a wonderfully impetuous, sometimes wild but captivating account of Schumann’s “Carnaval.” Coming after his own daunting piano sonata, this virtuosic Schumann work seemed almost easy by contrast, at least as played here by the tireless Mr. Hough.

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